Friday, July 03, 2009

Disclaimer: July 2009

I was conducting a short crash course on forum moderation the other day. It was right in the middle of a short discussion on plagiarism in forum posts, however, when somebody raised their hand in my face.

"I'm not taking questions yet," I said.

"Yeah, but how can you tell if a guy is infringing copyright or not?"

That opened up a whole can of worms, I have to admit. Discussion forums aren't the most common place to find copyright violations, seeing that most forum posts are short and reactive by nature. However, I recalled an old case where the Sassy Lawyer found one of her articles copied and pasted in its entirety on a local board, which indicated that there was the possibility that such a thing could happen.

The first thing that I pointed out was the lack of "voice". A plagiarized post is usually presented in a tone and style that is different from the poster's usual approach, obviously because the work didn't come from the same source. In short, you could put the suspicious piece alongside the poster's previous works and identify marked differences between the two.

"Every writer has a distinct style," I said. "Taking my blog as an example, you'll notice that its works tend to go in certain directions. The words are chosen well enough that the posts make sense, but not so well that the writer doesn't come off as long-winded. There's also a noticeable trend towards strange humor, and the works of fiction make heavy use of dialogue and plot twists.

"That said, it's sometimes difficult to read tone and style, so another good move would involve Googling an excerpt of the suspicious work. Most Internet plagiarists will take stuff from whatever sites are handy, so if a work was stolen, you're likely to find an online source."

Someone raised their hand. "What if somebody copied it from a web site, but changed some words so that no one could tell that it was plagiarized? Or what if they retyped it from a non-online source?"

"If anyone would be willing to put that much work into the piece," I said, "then they probably would not have taken the work in the first place. They would normally just write something on their own. But even if you make some small adjustments, there's a good chance that the rest of the work would come out on an online search."

"So what should we do if this happens?"

"Easy," I said. "You just have to remove the offending content, then place a moderator's warning at the bottom of the post. Tell them the right thing to do."

"Which is...?"

"That if they use any information from any outside source, they should include an acknowledgment of that source. Usually a link to the original web site is preferred. This is the approach that I use on my own blog — everything I write there is completely original, except for those areas that I borrow, reference or quote... and it's those items where I place my links."


"Sometimes you might run into the reverse situation — someone from outside the web site contacts you and tells you that one of their works was unlawfully taken and posted in the forums. In that case, you should remove the content and put up a notice in its place. Normally the authors would be willing to negotiate over the use of the work, but as a blanket policy, you should remove these at the first sign of any issues.

"I've never had such a dispute with any external source, but on my end, I would try to talk it over with them and smooth out any differences. If I would prefer to keep using the reference (which is unlikely for most forums), I'd negotiate.

"That goes for any work originating on the forum that gets used on the outside, too. For me, I want to get asked for permission before anyone uses my work. That's usually all that there is to it, and you'd be surprised at how many people don't even bother to do that. I don't want to find that me work got credited to someone else who had absolutely nothing to do with its creation. Neither do I want to find my work used to slander and ruin people, much less get interpreted outside its original context."

Another hand went up. "So what do we do if somebody's work on the forums gets stolen?"

"There's not much you can do, because that's technically out of your scope," I said. "But you should at least inform the owner if he or she doesn't know yet. From there, it'll be up to them on what action they want to take. Be prepared to provide information to the authorities if the issue gets investigated. I would suggest that you lock the post or thread immediately to preserve the evidence; that's what the timestamps are for.

"If you're wondering, the usual penalty for copyright infringement usually involves monetary compensation. Bigger cases may see a betrayal of trust of some sort, and may have stiffer penalties. That's not discounting whatever the owner of the work can think of. Online, there are things worse than what the authorities can dream up."

I looked over my tiny audience. "Any other questions before we move on?" I asked.

When there were no responses, I turned back to the whiteboard. "Okay," I said, "the next thing that we need to discuss is the prevalence of the 'Me Too' response in discussion forums..."

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